Friday, 20 April 2018

Making one's presence known

This is the post I've been writing on and off for the past few days, and like the previous one, it has  an element of  social media about it. I have a Facebook account which I actually use on a fairly regular basis. The site came into its own earlier this year, when my wife was ill in hospital, as a means of updating family members of her progress, so Facebook does have its good points, if used wisely!

The other day I noticed a string of posts on the CAMRA Unofficial Facebook page, which sparked off a lengthy debate. It started with a pub landlord complaining that despite installing seven real ale pumps, and successfully promoting real ale, the only time he saw CAMRA members was when he offered them a "free session". He went on to say that, "these sessions apart", CAMRA members never visited his pub, or indeed any of the other pubs in the area, to promote or support the sale of cask ales. 

Well this was a rather provocative statement and, as you can imagine, it provoked a puzzled, and at times quite angry response from a lot of CAMRA members. Most of these were along the lines of, "How do you know if CAMRA members are visiting your pub or not?", or "I love the assumption that all CAMRA members go around proclaiming their membership". Another correspondent even added, "Guess we should make it mandatory for every CAMRA member to grow a beard and wear socks & sandals".

Most CAMRA members, of course, don't wear a badge or announce they are a member, when they walk into a pub, and why would they? With this in mind it's perhaps not surprising that the comment, "CAMRA never come here," is a fairly common one. But is it justified? And why should licensees expect CAMRA members to identify themselves when they're just ordinary people out for a drink.

CAMRA has nearly 200,000 members, so it's difficult to believe a licensee's claim that his or her pub is the only one in the country they don’t drink in, but if you have decided to install hand pumps and promote real ale, has your business suffered because of it? If it hasn’t, it might seem a bit galling to think that CAMRA are ignoring all the effort and hard work you have put in, if they don’t happen to call in.
But perhaps the local CAMRA contingent do pop by from time to time, because as one contributor to the debate put it, “I love the assumption that all CAMRA members go around proclaiming their membership. I've drunk in lots of pubs and my membership status has never come up in conversation.”

I have been a CAMRA member for over 40 years, but have always preferred to keep quiet about my membership status when visiting pubs. The only times I have revealed my membership of CAMRA, have been whilst carrying out surveys for the Good Beer Guide. I don’t do those any more, so publicans beware, that quiet, unassuming, slightly over-weight, middle-aged bloke sitting in the corner, minding his own business, might just be a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. 

Joking aside, there is a more serious side to my reticence, and that is because on those occasions where I have revealed my identity, there have been times when I’m asked questions like, “What do I have to do to get my pub into the Good Beer Guide?” Worse are those embarrassing moments where a pub has been dropped from the Guide, and I’m expected to provide an explanation.

“Sorry your beer is below par,” doesn’t feel the right thing to say; even if it happens to be true, and as selections for the GBG are made on a group basis, I don’t want to be the person who gets put on the spot by having to justify the exclusion of a pub, following what was a collective decision.

It is understandable for licensees to be upset, and many take it as a personal affront. After all their pub is their home, their livelihood and often their passion as well. Despite my desire to remain in the background, I have become known over the years, to quite a few publicans in the area, and have been made to feel rather uncomfortable under such circumstances.

I’ve even had one landlord message me on WhatsApp, asking why his pub had been dropped from the guide. Even worse though, is having to listen to a landlord blaming the failure of his pub directly on CAMRA’s decision to drop it from the Good Beer Guide. A friend suffered a similar experience with the landlord of another pub. Deflecting the blame for the failure of your business, onto CAMRA may seem an easy option, but did the Campaign make that much of a difference to your beer sales? 

Both pubs were dropped from the Guide for the simple reason that their beer quality failed to meet the standard expected. Both had too many pumps on the bar, and there was insufficient trade to ensure an adequate turnover of all these beers.Both pubs have been converted into private dwellings, which would have fetched considerably more then they would have done as pubs, so the real losers here would have been the local community and not the individual licensees. CAMRA was nothing more than a convenient “whipping boy”.

It can be fun being a CAMRA member folks, but it’s also worth remembering it isn’t all beer and skittles, and neither is it all cakes and ale!


Russtovich said...

"so Facebook does have its good points, if used wisely!"

Not a user myself but totally agree. My wife uses it with her (huge!) family. Best way for all of them to keep in touch.

"Another correspondent even added, "Guess we should make it mandatory for every CAMRA member to grow a beard and wear socks & sandals"."

LOL, indeed! :)

"The only times I have revealed my membership of CAMRA, have been whilst carrying out surveys for the Good Beer Guide."

See, I thought it would be the other way round. If judging a pub you'd want to keep it secret so they don't pander to you, a bit like food critics are supposed to be incognito. :)

"Worse are those embarrassing moments where a pub has been dropped from the Guide, and I’m expected to provide an explanation."

Proves my point above. :)

"It can be fun being a CAMRA member folks, but it’s also worth remembering it isn’t all beer and skittles, and neither is it all cakes and ale!"

Very good point Paul. Even if they do know who you are, the 'foot soldiers' as it were, shouldn't be taking the brunt. Call or email CAMRA's head office. They might just as well get mad at a bad review on Yelp or TripAdvisor (which happens from what I hear - such is life in our digital age).


Martin Taylor said...

An interesting andvd timely post in light of CAMRA AGM and what should be a focus on the role of CAMRA in promoting real ale quality and availability.

I suspect that licensee is making the point there were some familiar faces when I put on all these wxtra pumps and local beers (see local CAMRA nmagazines across the country for examples), but now no-one is drinking them. For many pubs, CAMEA member = the real alw drinker !

Curmudgeon said...

The other one is going in a pub to distribute the local magazine and being asked "are we in this one?" And, of course, the good, steady pubs that don't have constantly rotating guest beers and beer festivals are less likely to feature.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I wonder if inclusion in the GBG really makes that much difference to the viability of a pub?
And how many of those 200,000 CAMRA members actually drink anywhere else than a handful of their local pubs ?
I suppose it's good to have the sticker on the window but even then there could be a collection of stickers and how many people really take that much attention of them ?
I'm with you however on quality of beer and too many taps and not enough turnover.
That and the people running pubs are key factors and it never ceases to amaze me how many people working in the service sector actually despise the public.

Paul Bailey said...

You are more likely to receive a first class pint in one of the "good, steady" pubs than in some of the "beer exhibition" pubs .

Many CAMRA members know this, but come GBG selection time this percieved wisdom seems to go out of the window.

Paul Bailey said...

The perils of typing on a small screen. I was going to say I wholeheartedly agree with you Prof, about miserable bar staff and curmudgeonly landlords.

Given these negative character traits why on earth do these people go into the hospitality trade?

Curmudgeon said...

@Prof - it very much depends on the type of pub. For someone starting a new specialist beer pub in a slightly hard-to-find location, it could make a huge difference. For an established back-street local tied to a family brewer, probably none at all.

I'd say quite a high proportion of the 200,000 CAMRA members are people who, to a greater or lesser extent, do see visiting different pubs as a specific leisure interest.

Ethelred The Unsteady said...

Well Paul, I found that to be a good, and very-funny-in-places read.

It's top notch, to start the day with a few laugh-out-loud moments.

No, my CAMRA member friends don't generally go round telling anyone who will listen that they are card-carriers either, (like the cycling tourist of North Cornwall, back in the days of Monty Python.)

Keep 'em coming.



RedNev said...

I've been told "CAMRA members never come in here", to which I've replied, "I'm in CAMRA and I'm here." Not sure why, but that doesn't seem to count. I've also asked how they'd know as members don't have 'CAMRA' stamped on their foreheads.

I stopped going to one pub in Southport which I had previously gone to regularly for the singarounds simply because every so often the licensee would grill me as to why her pub had been dropped from the GBG. CAMRA member or not, I was still a customer handing my money over the bar: I don't go to the pub to pay for the privilege of being given a hard time by the licensee.

Paul Bailey said...

"I was still a customer handing my money over the bar: I don't go to the pub to pay for the privilege of being given a hard time by the licensee."

My point exactly, Nev. I go to the pub to relax and not to face a grilling. There's a lot to be said at times for keeping quiet about one's CAMRA membership.

Dave said...

Side question on this topic. When the GBG was first put out it was quite slim. Were most pubs selling real ale in it in the early days of the guide? Has being in the GBG become more difficult due to more pubs selling real ale? I am wondering if the relationship between CAMRA and publicans has changed because being in the GBG is more difficult now. In other words there is more opportunity for publicans to feel slighted by the selection process now than in the past. Just curious.

RedNev said...

I think that is a good point, Dave. The competition is much greater now, in terms of the number of pubs serving real ale and in the number of real ales available, both of which add to the difficulties in selecting.

I was a student in the Warrington area, and our beer choices were bitter or mild from Greenalls or Tetley, mostly the former: our local Wetherspoons now have more choice than the whole of Warrington did back then. Deciding which pubs serve the best Greenalls and Tetleys would have been much simpler than choosing among pubs which combined serve a dizzying selection of very varied beers from dozens of breweries.

I think some licensees go wrong in assuming that, having gained a place in the GBG, it's theirs for evermore, when in fact it is one-year accolade. Being dropped from the GBG doesn't necessarily mean a pub has declined: it might simply mean that others have overtaken it.

Dave said...

Thanks for replying. I have wondered about this for a while. If my perception is accurate, I think the greater level of selectivity is an issue in how an organization is perceived. Many good pubs don't make the cut or move in and out. Oddly, I think that dilutes the message. (To be clear I watch this from afar and my opinion is meaningless.) I have thought the GBG guide should move to an inclusive format. Set a bar for what quality a pub should deliver and pubs that meet that bar are included regardless count. Yes, I get the Greater Manchester area and Yorkshire sections would be huge. I also am not a fan of the county allocation, but I have been told eliminating that leads to areas with no pubs and others with many pubs in the guide. Not an easy thing to solve. However, I do think getting people into pubs is as important to real ale as supporting the real ale is. Just thoughts...

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I've only ever owned a pub in Ireland where everyone owns and runs a freehold but I have to say if I knew there were all these hoops to jump through and the politics involved in getting and maintaining a GBG entry I wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole.
I'd just concentrate on banging out a limited but well-kept selection of good beer and to hell with the consequences.
I wonder how many landlords in the UK have come to that conclusion ?

Ethelred The Unsteady said...

In answer to your last question, not nearly enough in my opinion, prof.



Paul Bailey said...

In answer to your original question Dave, I have a battered and rather dog-eared copy of that first 1974, Good Beer Guide, and as you rightly point out, it was very thin. The pub descriptions were just one or two lines, but it still contained 1,500 entries. There were no entries for Scotland though, so the Guide was confined to England and Wales.

As Nev has pointed out, the choice of beers in those days, was limited to just mild and bitter, and apart from the occasional seasonal special, such as Old Ale or Winter Warmer, this was the case throughout the country.

There were considerable variations though in the number of entries for each location, and this in turn was driven by availability of cask ale. For example, in Manchester – where I was a student at the time, all Boddingtons, Holts and I think Robinson’s pubs sold the real thing, and other brewers such as Hydes and Lees, were pretty much all “real” as well.

Contrast this with Norwich (and Norfolk in general), where a friend of mine was at uni. Watney’s dominated that part of East Anglia, and their pubs were all keg. I think there was just one pub in the whole of Norwich which sold cask ale, (the Wild Man).

CAMRA’s resources were much more limited than they are now, so information on good “real ale” pubs was rather sketchy. It was said that the old county of Huntingdonshire was surveyed in a single lunchtime session, as someone had neglected to include the county in the guide. All the entries are either on, or just off the A14 trunk road, which passes through the county.

I am certain that many pubs were included solely on the basis they sold the real thing, rather than the actual quality of the beer. This is, of course, in complete contrast to the situation today.

With hindsight, that first guide should have been called the Real Ale Guide, but in a piece of clever marketing, the present title of Good Beer Guide was selected instead.

Dave said...

Very interesting history. Thanks for the detail. I do find the Norfolk part regarding the A14 really funny. Hard to believe when you look at that county now.

Curmudgeon said...

@Dave - the main reasons early GBGs were slim was because they used a smaller typeface, had much shorter descriptions and didn't have the bloated brewery section of the current one. By the time we had reached 1977/78 they contained more pubs than the current one - 5,500 versus 4,500. At this time the absolute number of real ale pubs was much the same as today, but the total number of pubs was much greater, so they represented a lower proportion.

Availability across the country was more patchy, but there were some areas, such as most of Greater Manchester, that were absolutely brimming with real ale outlets in a way that they just aren't nowadays.

Ethelred The Unsteady said...

There are things worse that the threat of compulsory beards and sandals. That of Morris Dancing IMHO.


Dave said...

Mudgie, as always thanks. Interesting. I was not sure of the numbers then versus now. I have only actually held GBGs from 97 forward.